Spain’s Missing

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By Bojana Djokanovic

In February 2016, the news portal Spanish News Today reported the exhumation of the remains of Timoteo Mendieta from a mass grave in Guadalajara. The exhumation was ordered by an Argentinian judge.[1] Mendieta was a victim of the Franco regime, killed in the months after the end of the Spanish civil war. His remains, which were found together with those of 19 or 20 other people, were to be removed from the mass grave and, following DNA analysis in Argentina to confirm the identity, were to be buried elsewhere in accordance with the wishes of his daughter.

The Spanish civil war, from 1936 to 1939, ended with the victory of General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces, which had received military support from Germany and Italy. The conflict was characterized by human rights violations and war crimes, perhaps the most notorious of which was the German terror bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937. Republican forces were responsible for around 60,000 casualties during the war, military and civilian, while responsibility for between 75,000 and 150,000 casualties is attributed to the Nationalists, not just during the war but in the brutal repression that followed the end of the conflict.[2]

During the war, the bodies of victims of extralegal executions were routinely discarded in remote, unmarked locations. The remains of the celebrated poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, executed by Nationalists in Granada in 1936, have never been found.[3] The location of Lorca’s final resting place has been the subject of intense historical research and archeological investigation particularly in recent years.

In 1977, immediately after the democratic elections that followed the death of Franco, Spain’s parliament enacted an Amnesty Law lifting sanctions against opponents of the dictatorship and at the same time shielding officials of the regime from prosecution for human rights violations.

The “Pact of Forgetting,” one of the pillars of the Transition to Democracy, enjoyed broad support for a generation. However, this began to be challenged when the Socialist Government steered the Historical Memory Act through parliament in 2007. The Law addresses crimes and atrocities committed during the civil war and the Franco era. It requires the central government to facilitate the process of locating, exhuming and identifying victims whose remains are still missing. This state-level facilitation consists mainly of providing financial resources to local organizations such as NGOs and academic institutions to locate and exhume mass graves. The Law further provides for the authorities to prepare and publish a map showing the locations of all discovered mass graves.

More than two generations after the civil war, the mass graves of Franco’s “disappeared” victims began to be exhumed from locations across the country. There are believed to be as many as 2,000 such clandestine graves across Spain. By 2010, more than 150 graves of Republican victims had been found and excavated. They were mostly found in wells, ditches or at the edges of cemeteries.

The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica or ARMH)[4] is among the organizations that collect oral and written testimonies about victims, and excavate and identify remains.

Government support for the process of accounting for the missing has fluctuated. The center-right administration of Mariano Rajoy, which came into office in 2011, has been less enthusiastic about the process than its socialist predecessor.

Further, although the Law enables local authorities to provide funding for exhumations at sites where clandestine graves have been located, the authorities in different parts of the country have considerable discretion regarding how much or how little assistance they give. This has meant that families of the missing have often had to make repeated requests to officials, who have found a host of bureaucratic pretexts on which to deny the requests. While in some parts of the country families have been able to achieve a measure of closure with the help of the authorities, in others disputes over access to archives have reopened old wounds, and the objective of establishing the truth about Spain’s history during a large part of the twentieth century has not been met.[5]

Discovering the truth and publicly discussing the past are basic components of transitional justice. They help to address long-term injustice, and they make it possible for survivors to mourn and memorialize the dead. These are essential elements in dealing effectively with a violent past.